Remember Federalism? 20 States Are Taking the Lead on Transportation Infrastructure

Last year, 30 Republican Senators voted to turn back control of transportation spending to the states.  Senators who opposed the plan insisted that when it comes to building roads, the States need leadership from Washington.  Only in Washington is “leadership from Washington” considered a good thing. Right now, at least 20 states are taking the lead on transportation infrastructure.

Over the past several months, Innovation Briefs has highlighted a list of “Can-Do” states.  In April, they identified 14 states that are raising additional funds for transportation.  Policy aside (conservatives don’t like tax hikes at the state or federal level), these states are taking steps they believe will improve their transportation programs.  Since then, the list has grown to 20 states.  Innovation Briefs highlights some lawmakers’ “opportunistic calls for more federal infrastructure spending.” Such calls are illustrated by the following story:

Recently, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) called for a $5.5 billion emergency federal program “to fix the nation’s backlog of deficient and structurally obsolete bridges”  (H.R. 2428).  He was responding to the well- publicized collapse of the  I-5 bridge  in Washington State . “It’s an emergency out there,” Rahall proclaimed at a news conference on Capitol Hill. ” We cannot afford for the next bridge to collapse. It’s time to act.”   Predictably, infrastructure advocates and lobbyists, never letting a serious accident go to waste, echoed Rahall, calling the I-5 bridge  incident a “wake-up call on the state of U.S. infrastructure”  and “a dramatic reminder that we need to make significant investments to bring our bridges to a state of good repair.” They conveniently ignored the fact that the collapse was caused not by any “structural deficiency” but by a semi truck with an oversized load hitting an overhead girder. The bridge is back in service with a temporary replacement span.  A permanent new span will be installed in late summer. (emphasis added)

Maintaining an adequate infrastructure to meet the needs of Americans is a reasonable goal.  However, all too often, politicians in Washington exploit this need to increase federal spending instead of allowing the states to meet their own transportation infrastructure needs:

A growing number of states aren’t waiting for the federal government to come to the rescue with new money. They are taking matters into their own hands and taking control of their infrastructure agendas.  

That echoes what Heritage Action said last year before the Senate voted on state authority for transportation spending:

Americans are paying into a system that is supposed to help their state, but all too often they are not getting a good return on their investment. State and local governments are becoming increasingly concerned with the uncertainty created by Washington. Instead of playing middleman, Congress should get out of the highway business and empower states to keep their own money. States could have an element of certainty and would be freed from the costly and cumbersome strings that come attached with federal monies.

The States have various strategies for raising revenue for infrastructure projects – from adjusting the gas tax to installing tolls on the state highway system.  We’re not weighing in on the particular policies here, but it is important to highlight and advocate for is the preservation of federalism and the States’ ability to take command of their own future and decisions.

The States realize that the federal government has lost focus and is inefficient with federal funds – as is the case in so many other areas.  Moreover, the federal government has inappropriately taken responsibility for what is properly the role of state and local governments.   The federal “Highway Trust Fund has lost its capacity to support large-scale transportation investments and has come to depend for its solvency on periodic injections of general fund revenue.”  Those “injections” come in the form of a taxpayer bailout (yes, bailout).  The National Journal graphic below illustrates the out-of-control spending of the HTF:

HTF graphic transportation

In the long term, the States’ growing control over their own infrastructure will result in less need for federal financial aid and more efficiency because there will be fewer federal requirements and mandates.

The Heritage Foundation explains that the States do not have to wait for Congressional action to meet their own goals and outlines a number of states that have proceeded accordingly:

Figuring out a workable solution for transportation needs is each state’s prerogative. States are demonstrating their willingness and ability to address funding challenges, and their response builds momentum for increasing state control of transportation funding and decisions.

States are increasingly facing challenges in addressing their legitimate transportation needs. Given waning HTF funds and budget pressures, states are searching for alternative funding streams. The T&I Committee should not pursue increased or even status quo federal control of transportation policy. It should begin to phase out the federal transit program and further phase out transportation alternatives’ eligibility for federal funding.

They add that one means of narrowing the gap between local infrastructure needs and available public funds is through public-private partnerships:

States benefit greatly from the job creation, increased capacity, and decreased traffic congestion that P3s yield—all for less up-front investment.

The bottom line is that federal lawmakers should give states flexibility to take care of themselves, rather than tying them down with regulations and mandates. It is encouraging that many states aren’t waiting for the federal government to get its act together, but ultimately we need Congress to turn back authority to the states.

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